From the Gospel And Modern Substitutes:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16).
PAUL was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but a good many people nowadays are ashamed of it. At least the Epistle to the Romans, in which more fully than in any other book of the Bible, that gospel is set forth, is not altogether a popular book. And the reason why it is unpopular is perfectly plain—it is unpopular because it is so disturbingly definite. Paul had one thing, and one thing only, to say about the way of salvation. His program of religious work was very simple and very uncompromising. He had no sympathy with what J. S. Phillimore has aptly called, “The courtly polygamies of the soul.” For him there was one Lord and Master and one only—namely, Jesus Christ. Paul had no sympathy with the notion that religion is something to be kept in the background of life and that there is such a thing as being “too religious”. The Religious Work Program of the Y.M.C.A. may be made too prominent, say some, so as to discourage men who are interested in the welfare of mankind and yet are not willing to commit their all to Jesus Christ, who died for all men. But Paul would not have recognized the Y.M.C.A. as Christian, if it keeps its “Religious Work Program” as we say in modern phraseology, in the background and does not make it the whole of what it is trying to do. Salvation according to Paul was to be found only in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit of God and received through faith.
But if a modern leader of the church had found himself in the place where the Apostle Paul found himself when that letter was written, it would have been a different letter that would have been produced, because at the present time men are inclined to be very apologetic and very concessive about their Christianity. They are perfectly willing to admit that this may be one way in which other people are helped, but if other people are helped in some different way, we are as far as possible, men say today, from trying to make our way theirs. If you had found the leader of a modern church in the place in which Paul found himself when this letter was written, a very different letter would have been produced. Paul was preparing for his coming to the city of Rome, and it was the time to put his best foot forward—a time to win adherents to his cause by a concessive attitude. The modern leader would have said: “Paul, to all those at Rome who are leading the Christ life, whatever may be the name by which they are called and whatever may be their creed, Greeting: I rejoice when I hear of your noble Christian service, and I long to see you, that you and I may talk over together methods of Christian work. Unfortunately, circumstances have prevented, but I hope at least to be able to see you. For I am not ashamed of the gospel that I preach, because I believe that with careful handling, if emphasis be laid upon the points where it is agreed with other faiths and if controversial matters be kept carefully in the background, I believe that the gospel that I preach may safely be proclaimed without creating too much trouble, even in the city of Rome.”
This is the beginning of the modern Epistle to the Romans. It is true, our modern Paul would have had a great deal of explaining to do. And the rest of the letter would have had to run something like this: “It
is true,” our modern Paul would have had to say, “In Galatia unfortunate anathemas were pronounced against those who were proclaiming a different gospel. Now, when we come to Rome, we want to make it perfectly plain that if the Jews can obtain any help from conforming to the Mosaic law as one of the means of salvation, we shall not interfere with them. At Ephesus, the unfortunate impression was produced that our gospel was interfering with the worship of Diana of the Ephesians. Now we want to make it plain when we come to Rome that if one man can obtain contact with the divine through plastic representations commonly called idols, we are as far as possible from wanting to interfere with his faith. At Thessalonica, something unfortunate was said about turning from idols to serve the living God. Now when we come to Rome we want to make it plain that we are not asking any man to turn from anything. We are not giving a man a new creed, but we are merely trying to help him make effective in his life whatever creed he may chance to have.”
That is the modern Epistle to the Romans. Sermons are being preached from it in thousands of pulpits today.
But I call your attention to this fact, that if the Epistle to the Romans be re-written in this way,—and as a matter of fact it is not only the Epistle to the Romans that has to be rewritten, but also the teachings of Jesus—if it is to be rewritten in this way, the actual Epistle disappears. In fact the whole Bible disappears. The beginning of the Epistle to the Romans is particularly unfortunate from this modern concessive point of view, because Paul does not begin with mere general principles of religion—after the manner of those modern men who hold that back of Christianity and all positive faith you have some certain general principles of religion that you can get at and that men can agree on, so that people will say: “We can agree upon certain permanent general principles of religion.” Paul thought general principles of religion were the most gloomy and hopeless things in the world. He thought that if we were dependent upon things which always were true, general principles of religion and the nature of man, we should be in despair, because of sin and the righteous judgment of God. It was not merely general principles of religion that he was interested in. It was one thing that had happened,—one thing that God did, that put a new face upon the world. Paul begins the Epistle, therefore, with the things that are “most in dispute.” “Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” There is nothing concessive about that. These were just the things which were mostly in dispute, in those times as today. If you go on through the Epistle to the Romans, you will see that if you re-write it in the modern concessive way, taking your confidence from this one thing that Christ did when he offered himself for the sins of men upon the Cross, you will see that this Epistle to the Romans disappears, and so does the rest of the Bible.
Then we come to the first main section of the Epistle beginning with the eighteenth verse of the first chapter: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men …” Well, of course we will hear nothing of the wrath of God. We have learned in our day, it is said, to “interpret” God altogether in terms of love, and have gotten rid of all juridical notions about Him as though He sat upon some awful judgment seat and condemned men in the white heat of His righteous indignation. So there are three chapters of the Epistle to the Romans gone at one swoop. And when we are getting rid of those chapters, we must by the way get rid of a large part of the teaching of Jesus; for the teaching of Jesus is full of the wrath of God. If you want terrible presentations of the wrath of God, turn not to Cotton Mather or to Jonathan Edwards or to Calvin or to Augustine or to Paul; but turn rather to Jesus of Nazareth. It was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come.*
*Machen, J. G. (1949). God Transcendent and Other Selected Sermons (N. B. Stonehouse, Ed.) (88–91). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.